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Radiolab: Science, Society, Storytelling

Radiolab: Science, Society, Storytelling

If there was ever an audio program I was bound to love, it would be Radiolab by WNYC. This is because it combines two of my favorite things: storytelling and science (a combo I've already professed my love for while discussing The Immortal Life. Which incidentally is the subject of one of Radiolab's many great episodes. I digress.) Radiolab finds fascinating stories at the intersection of science, philosophy, and society, and delivers them in premium form; episodes are characterized by superb sound engineering, well-researched stories, and captivating delivery. They range from highly emotional, to largely historical, to straight-up scientific, but a commonality is the stellar entertainment factor and the underlying exploration of the human condition.

One of the things I admire most about Radiolab is how accessible it is for a non-specialist audience. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are not scientists, but they are excellent communicators, and they frequently chat with specialists in different fields to bring cutting-edge knowledge to the public. (For example, they recently chatted with science rockstar Jennifer Doudna to explain her breakthrough genome-editing technology, CRISPR.) Occasionally their questions feel scripted, but most often they feel genuine and like something you yourself would want to ask. These hosts clearly love their jobs and have fun with the show, which adds to their delightful chemistry to make the listening experience a real treat. As a bonus, Jad's voice is one of the most smooth, soothing sounds on radio (as was recently pointed out by 2 Dope Queens' hilarious Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams), so I would happily listen to him talk science all day every day.

Of course, there is a flip side to making science accessible, and that is the inescapable simplification that occurs when communicating complex concepts. I know some scientists who get irritated with the oversimplifications on Radiolab, and I can't blame them because I, too, have made snarky criticisms while listening to some episodes. But let's face it: unless we want science communication to occur only within specialized communities, as opposed to between communities, we are going to need some streamlined communication. And that means some simplifying is in order. All in all, Radiolab does an excellent job straddling this awkward line between strict scientific accuracy and engaging public interest.

If you're about to travel for the holidays and you're looking for something to listen to, stock up on Radiolab episodes, then have a blast getting your learn on. It's become a tradition for my husband and I to replay the best episodes of the year during our annual Thanksgiving drive, which leaves us with plenty of interesting conversation starters at the dinner table. This year will be no exception.

 

Above photo by Lauren Shipp

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